It’s often said about scientists that they speak a different language. Theodor Hänsch proves that is not the case in a chat on the sun terrace at the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting.
DW: Herr Hänsch, what happened after your Nobel Prize?
Theodor Hänsch: People often say, ‘What is there left to do once you have the Nobel Prize?’ But as a researcher you are not doing what you do to get the Nobel Prize, but to satisfy your curiosity about nature. And that doesn’t stop after the prize.
Did people recognize you on the street after you won the prize?
In 2005 there was an incredible amount of media attention, probably because it was the first time in 10 years that a German-based scientist had won the Nobel Prize. It was reported everywhere – in the newspapers, the journals, on television. And of course people recognized me on the street. Total strangers would come up and talk to me – it took some getting used to.
If you had followed another career path and not become a scientist –how would it have been?
My father wanted me to be a doctor. That was close to science, but somehow very different. I don’t think it would have been good for me. I don’t have a good memory and I can’t remember the names of bones and things like that.
What was the greatest moment in your life in research?
There were several moments. When you’ve been struggling with a problem for a long time and not been able to find a solution – and then you suddenly make a discovery or have a brilliant idea and can show that it works - what an overwhelming feeling! I had it for the first time in 1970 when I was a new postdoc at Stanford University. Back then I made a laser that not only emitted light of a single color but that could be varied in all the colors of the rainbow. Back then, that was a completely new tool!
Did you also experience setbacks that made you call it all into question?
Luckily there weren’t any setbacks like that. Of course, you sometimes find yourself at a dead end and you realize we’re not going to get out of it unless we think up something. But that is precisely the challenge to the inventive mind. And it‘s fun.
What invention do you wish for next?
As soon as someone has thought of it, it’s been invented. But looking back - well I think we’ve got some interesting surprises in store. People will probably view our technology as the extremely primitive precursor of the real technology. The way we view Morse telegraphy is probably the way people will view Skype.
Please complete this sentence: I have no idea about…
…that would fill volumes! Well, at the risk of losing some friends…..I don’t know much about soccer.
Herr Hänsch, what do you think of when you hear “research in Germany?”
Research in Germany is very productive at the moment. We have good institutes, good universities and above all good young people who are enthusiastic about research. So, no reason to complain!
Professor Theodor Hänsch is a physicist. He shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for his work on laser spectroscopy.
Interview by Hannah Fuchs